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They Help Farmers Survive in the Sertão

They Help Farmers Survive in the Sertão

 They Help Farmers Survive in the Sertão


SOME ten million goats roam the sertão *, the semiarid region that covers 440,000 square miles [1,100,000 sq km] of northeast Brazil. Here summer means nine months of cloudless skies, suffocating heat, and scorched, brick-hard earth. Rivers disappear, trees shed their leaves, the wind blows hot and dry, and farm animals roam free in search of whatever meager vegetation they can find.

Brazil’s native goats, however, seem oblivious to the dry conditions. In the worst droughts, cattle and sheep herds decline, but the number of goats increases. How do they manage to survive?

A Mouth Designed for Survival

Many people who live in the sertão claim that goats eat anything​—including boots, saddles, and clothes. Professor João Ambrósio, researcher at the National Center for Research on Goats, in Sobral, northeast Brazil, confirms that goats can survive on an apparently indigestible diet that includes the roots, dry leaves, and bark of over 60 species of plants. Other farm animals such as cattle depend almost exclusively on grass.

Being less choosy helps, but the goat’s mouth gives it a decisive advantage. Ambrósio points out that cattle grasp food with their tongues and are incapable of selecting an individual leaf or the bark of a plant. Goats, however, use their small mouth, flexible lips, and sharp teeth to choose and then pluck a plant’s most nutritious parts. This ability to hunt for and select scarce food has gained the goat a reputation for destroying vegetation. “Blame man who forces the goat to live in such conditions. The goat is just trying to survive,” says Ambrósio.

Raising Goats Makes Sense

It is no surprise that hardy native goats have assumed a pivotal role in sertão subsistence farming. For many families they are an important source of protein. Since beef can be expensive, roasted or boiled goat and buchada (goat’s stomach stuffed with diced tripe and rice) are standard fare. Goat hides are sold to leather-processing factories to  provide extra income. Thus, in an emergency, goats are easily converted into ready cash to buy medicine or other essentials.

An added advantage is that goats practically rear themselves. During the day small herds graze together in the unfenced caatinga, or thorn forests. At nightfall, goats recognize their owner’s voice, and each returns obediently to its respective corral. The farmer usually intervenes only during the breeding season when he chooses the goats he will slaughter, treats the sick ones, and brands the young. Goats are so easy to rear that even town dwellers often keep a few in their back garden or, despite local laws, allow them to roam around in town. It is not unusual to see a goat grazing in the town square.

Centuries of experience have proved that goat-rearing makes sense, especially for small farmers. It takes the same amount of labor and land to rear eight goats as it does to raise one cow. And consider: Suppose a farmer has five cows. If one dies, that represents a loss of 20 percent of his herd. But suppose that instead of 5 cows, he reared 40 goats. Such a herd would require about the same amount of land and labor. The death of one goat would represent a loss of just 2.5 percent. It is easy to understand why about a million Brazilian families view goats as a kind of insurance policy against drought and crop failure.

Incentives for Hard Work

Bahia State is home to some of the largest herds of goats, which number into the thousands. It has been said that in Uauá, a small town some 500 miles [800 km] inland from the state capital, goats outnumber local inhabitants 5 to 1. Practically the entire community’s livelihood depends on raising goats or on related activities. Locals often joke, “In Uauá it is goats that rear men, not men that rear goats.”

The first baby goats start to appear in May, about five months after the beginning of the breeding season. Dedicated goatherds work from four o’clock in the morning till seven at night rounding up, watering, and rescuing lost and endangered baby goats. Dexterous herders lasso and milk hundreds of female goats each day to prevent the newborns from gorging themselves to death. Care also has to be taken to treat injuries and botfly infestation, which can cause small holes in the goat’s hide and reduce its commercial value.

 Tending the goats this way is a labor of love​—but not completely selfless. The traditional quarteação (quartering) system of payment used in Uauá and other rural localities rewards diligent herdsmen. They are given 1 of every 4 baby goats born each breeding season​—1 of every 3 when the herd’s owner is more generous. Each young goat is assigned a number, and numbered tokens are drawn at random from a cup. Since the lot may fall on lame or healthy, thin or fat alike, herdsmen look after the herd as if it were their own.

Getting More From Native Goats

Brazilian goats are descendants of species introduced by European settlers in the early 1500’s. However, native goats in general are smaller and yield much less milk than their European ancestors.

The Brazilian canindé, for example, produces considerably less than a quart of milk per day, while its genetic counterpart in Europe, the British alpine goat, can give about a gallon [3.8 L]. For decades, the dream of many farmers and agronomists has been to combine the native’s hardiness with its foreign ancestor’s productivity. That way “the poor man’s cow,” as many refer to the goat, could become the sertão farmer’s gold.

Crossbreeding native goats with foreign ones has proved to be a shortcut to increasing animal size and milk yield. An agricultural research unit in Paraíba State, northeast Brazil, successfully crossbred native goats with Italian, German, and English varieties. This resulted in larger animals that cope with dry conditions and have a higher milk yield. Varieties that formerly produced less than one quart [1 liter] of milk a day now produce between two and four quarts [2.2 and 3.8 L].

The research center in Sobral has made an equally profitable discovery that is cheaper to implement. Researchers noted that goats were partial to the foliage of certain trees. However, this foliage only became available when the trees were dormant and shed their leaves. To increase this food source, on certain trees all branches above a certain height were pruned. This forced the tree to sprout branches lower, within the goats’ reach. The result? A fourfold increase in weight gain for goats grazing on the specially prepared areas.

Despite these innovations, small-herd owners may still face a problem that scientific research is unlikely to solve. What is that? Well, as one farmer explained, “goats get used to the people who care for them, and they become pets. So getting rid of one can be a problem.” Owners simply do not want to part with their pets! Could that be another reason why the goat is a survivor?


^ par. 3 Portuguese settlers apparently called it the desertão, or big desert, because it reminded them of the deserts and savannas of North Africa.

[Box/Picture on page 27]

The Truth About Goat’s Milk

Many say that it is hard to digest; others that it smells. But do not believe the bad press goat’s milk gets. If you have difficulty digesting cow’s milk, your doctor or dietitian may well prescribe goat’s milk products as an alternative. Although richer in proteins and fat, its fat globules are smaller and easier to digest. And what about the smell?

Goat’s milk is, in fact, odorless. If you detect a strong, offensive odor, that may be because the goat was milked in unhygienic conditions or was in close contact with a male goat. Scent glands located behind the male’s horns produce a hormone that attracts the female. However, the hormone contaminates everything the male goat touches.

[Credit Line]

CNPC–Centro Nacional de Pesquisa de Caprinos (Sobral, CE, Brasil)

[Map on page 25]

(For fully formatted text, see publication)

The “Sertão”

[Picture on page 26]

The goat uses its well-designed mouth to select the best parts of a plant

[Credit Line]

Dr. João Ambrósio–EMBRAPA (CNPC)

[Picture Credit Lines on page 25]

Map: Mountain High Maps® Copyright © 1997 Digital Wisdom, Inc.; goats: CNPC–Centro Nacional de Pesquisa de Caprinos (Sobral, CE, Brasil)